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regrets by Vincent H. '23

about college and the pandemic

(I’ll introduce myself properly later, but I think this post gives a good crash course into what kinds of topics I usually think about anyway)

one of my favorite quotes does not have a discernible origin. “dead people receive more flowers than the living ones because regret is stronger than gratitude” is a refrain commonly attributed to anne frank, but wikiquote and other sources have been unable to locate it in any of her writings. it is especially strange that many people cite the line as coming from anne frank’s diary, despite the fact that the diary is freely available online and an easy ctrl+f search reveals that keywords such as “flowers”, “regret”, and “gratitude” never appear in any context remotely resembling the quote (like, did these people spend even two minutes on fact-checking?) 01 to be fair, the exact wording could differ between translations, but nobody has shown me a sentence that looks like a translation equivalent either. unfortunately, the internet has been so thoroughly inundated with this misattribution that it is no longer feasible to look for the true source, or at least i wasn’t able to get anywhere — every top search engine result i’ve seen has cited either anne frank or unknown

origin aside, this observation about regret is ubiquitous. it’s a common trope that appears in every other pop song about relationships , in tv shows about jobs and work, and so on. for better or worse, our brains are somewhat bad at understanding the value of the things we have and exceptionally good at wandering into pools of regret

the example that’s been on my mind the most lately is the pandemic — after getting sent home during march of my first year at mit, i spent many months at home ruminating about things i could’ve done differently in college, and i spent approximately zero months feeling grateful for the time i did spend in college. if i knew about covid i’d have spent more time exploring boston in the time i was actually there. if i knew everything would be online for over a year i’d have spent more time at in-person club meetings while i could. if i knew a certain type of person would stop talking to me the instant we went virtual i’d have tried to make different kinds of friends. if i knew this i would have done that i should have done that oh my god why didn’t i do the thing i should’ve done god i wish i did that instead. thoughts like these rampaged through my mind in the first few months of quarantine, especially because i didn’t have much to do at home and didn’t really have people to interact with

but of course all those ifs are vacuous — i couldn’t have known about covid, and i couldn’t have known about virtualization, and i couldn’t have known which people would ghost me, and it is meaningless to regret decisions that would only change given information i never had access to. it took a while for me to realize that if i must pick something here to regret then i should regret my inability to better understand the future, and therefore work on improving my foresight. but even here, it’s not clear to me whether the sentiment of regret is productive at all — i used to think the pain from regrets like these would spur me to work harder on addressing the subject of said regret, but the more times i go through this process the less convincing that claim is 02 the thing that really changed my mind for good was reading the <a href="" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">replacing guilt series</a>. it’s probably my favorite blog of all time

what does it mean when people repeat cliches like “live life with no regrets”? one interpretation of the phrase is that you should try to finish as many items on your bucket list as possible, so that even if you were forced to, say, leave campus prematurely or graduate early or drop out, you would have no regrets about not trying enough experiences. that interpretation focuses on the live portion of the phrase. it’s also quite difficult to execute well and to balance with other priorities, especially for people who have ambitious bucket lists, like one of my friends whose list contains the item “visit every restaurant on mass ave”

another interpretation of the phrase focuses on the regret portion and says that you should simply stop regretting — i can look back on all the times i’ve deeply regretted something and realize that there wasn’t really a benefit to any of it, and then over time i can train myself to notice and let go of the habits associated with regretting. i can learn from the consequences of my actions without needlessly beating myself up over all the what-ifs and should-haves, without having doubts that reverberate endlessly in my head, without letting the same mistakes of the past torment me over and over for days or weeks or months on end. it is okay that i haven’t visited much of boston. it is okay that i haven’t been super involved in campus life. it is okay that i sometimes make friends with the wrong people. none of this is an excuse for inaction or mediocrity; these are just statements about the fact that reality is okay

these days, when i catch my brain replaying memories and cringing or guilting myself, i take a deep breath and remind myself to also feel gratitude and acceptance towards my past experiences, because those are the things supplying me with the perspective i currently have. making this effort seems to genuinely help — though sometimes i wonder, am i actually letting go of regret, or merely suppressing it? if this is actually suppression in disguise then every feeling i’ve buried will eventually re-emerge. only time can reveal which path i am actually on, though i feel like i’m truly forgiving myself and absolving my mind of unnecessary negativity, so this is not something i am too worried about for now 

people are often skeptical when i mention this to them; the most common complaint is something along the lines of “can you really just change your thoughts and reactions to the world like that?” i think it’s possible, to varying degrees of effectiveness depending on what underlying mental conditions you have, but i don’t have any well-founded or particularly scientific reasons for thinking this — it’s just that i’m a big fan of growth mindsets and neuroplasticity ,03 when you read enough psychology you start believing anything is possible and i believe the human brain is fundamentally malleable in ways that we can take advantage of

so that means one of my goals, both at mit and elsewhere, is to prove not-anne-frank wrong, to give more flowers to the living than the dead, to feel gratitude more strongly than regret. that means loving the world enough to be grateful for every moment i spend in it and loving myself enough to stop regretting every misstep of the past. this is not the same as naivety or wearing rose-colored glasses — there is plenty i am skeptical of in the world and in myself, like our ability to fight the strain of covid that comes after delta, or my ability to properly manage work-life balance — but it has been 18 months since i last lived on campus, i regret nothing from the last time i was here, and i am so, so grateful to be back

  1. to be fair, the exact wording could differ between translations, but nobody has shown me a sentence that looks like a translation equivalent either. back to text
  2. the thing that really changed my mind for good was reading the replacing guilt series. it’s probably my favorite blog of all time back to text
  3. when you read enough psychology you start believing anything is possible back to text